Americans As Guerrilla Fighters: Robert Rogers And His Rangers

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Rogers’ financial situation was not helped by his marriage, onjunc 30, 1761, to Miss Elizabeth Browne, the daughter of a leading Episcopalian clergyman in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In less than two years his father-in-law was suing him for £2,500 for failing to support Elizabeth. At the same time the Reverend Browne accused Rogers of “Gratification of unlawful pleasure and Passion.”

Despite her father’s accusations Elizabeth stood by Robert as he struggled to pay off his creditors. After brief service against the Cherokee in the Carolinas and helping to quell Pontiac’s Rebellion, Rogers was finally thrown into debtors’ prison in New York. On the night of January 14, 1764, veterans who had served under him broke into the jail and released their former commander. Rogers escaped to New Hampshire, and a year later he departed for London, where he hoped to make his plight directly known to the government.

Once in London, Rogers added new luster to his reputation with the publication of his military Journals and A Concise Account of North America . Both books were highly successful, but the Concise Account had a special appeal for the British public, because it described regions of the continent previously occupied by the French.

Rogers befriended Benjamin Franklin and a rising young politician, Charles Townshend, whose brother had fought and died alongside Rogers at Fort Carillon in 1759. On October 17, 1765, the young warrior from the borders of New Hampshire was presented at court and permitted to kiss the hand of George III.

There is little doubt that Rogers used the audience to forward his pet project: an expedition to discover a northwest passage through the Great Lakes of America to China. For the cost of £32,000 he proposed to lead an expedition on a three-year trek to the head of the Mississippi and “from thence to the River called by the Indians Ouragon which flows into … the Pacific Ocean.” Discovery of such a passage to the East, Rogers reasoned, would not only pay off his debts but yield an immeasurable fortune to him and his backers.

Although the king favored the project, he judged it too expensive. However, he did appoint Rogers the first royal governor of Fort Michilimackinac at the salary of £183 a year. Rogers was also to receive pay as a captain in a troop known as the Royal Americans. It was hoped that from his vantage point at Michilimackinac he would superintend the local Indian tribes and make a detailed exploration of the wilderness to the west.

Rogers’ appointment to Michilimackinac ran directly counter to the interests of two powerful and vengeful men then serving in North America. These were General Thomas Gage, the new Commander in Chief of British forces, and Sir William Johnson, the soldier-trader who controlled the Iroquois tribes of upstate New York and much of the territory to the west. Gage had reason to resent Rogers, because the New Hampshireman’s Rangers had time and again outperformed the British Army’s corps of “light infantry,” a body of regular soldiers raised by Gage in 1757 to perform similar scouting duties against the Indians. At the same time Johnson believed that Rogers’ governorship, however far west, would tend to siphon off much of his own profitable trade with the Indians.

Shortly after Rogers arrived in New York on January 9, 1766, Gage wrote Johnson: “Be So good to Send me your Advice in what manner he may be best tied up by Instructions and prevent doing Mischief and imposing upon you.” In the months to come the two plotters did more than tie up Rogers with instructions. Working through a number of spies, Johnson purported to discover that Rogers planned to hand over his post to the French, who still maintained a shadowy presence beyond the Mississippi. Rogers was accused of holding “dangerous and traitorous Conferences with his Majesty’s Enemies” and was arrested by one of his own officers on December 6, 1767.

Rogers’ court-martial, held in Montreal, did not begin until mid-October, 1768, and even after his acquittal Gage stalled on releasing him from jail for three more months. The General also refused to reimburse some £3,800 in debts that Rogers had legitimately incurred as governor of Michilimackinac.

In an effort to pay off his creditors Rogers departed once again for London in the summer of 1769, only to be thrown in a debtors’ prison on arrival. His old patron, Charles Townshend, had died, but he was shortly rescued by another friend. At his release the hulking Ranger once again set London agog as, using his bare fists, he “fought his way thro the jaylers and turnkeys,” refusing to tip them for their small favors. In the coming months, however, the subtle and devious pressures brought to bear by Gage and Johnson were too much for him, and Rogers was returned to prison in the spring of 1771. Again his release was obtained by friends, but he began drinking heavily.

On October 16, 1772, Rogers failed to meet a debt of £1,400 and was imprisoned once more, this time in the Fleet—one of London’s most notorious prisons. Only the passage of a new bankruptcy law enabled him to gain his freedom nearly two years later. He returned to North America in 1775 after obtaining a major’s pension from the British government.